Curtis Emerson LeMay

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LeMAY, Curtis Emerson

(b. 15 November 1906 in Columbus, Ohio; d. 1 October 1990 on March Air Force Base, near Riverside, California), U.S. army and air force officer who established the ability of bombers to locate small targets at sea, created pattern bombing, oversaw the development of modern jet aircraft for the air force, and served as U.S. Air Force chief of staff from 1961 to 1965.

LeMay was the son of Erving LeMay, an occasional iron-worker who often worked odd jobs, and Arizona (Carpenter) LeMay, who was a teacher when she met Erving in 1902. Erving had trouble keeping jobs, and the family relocated as he wandered the United States seeking work. LeMay resolved to become a pilot when, as a boy, he saw an airplane flying overhead.

LeMay hoped to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. However, in 1924 he failed to gain an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and instead enrolled at Ohio State University, where he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). He worked in a steel foundry to pay his way through college. In 1928, not yet having completed college, he enlisted in the Ohio National Guard, and in 1930 he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the artillery. LeMay served at Fort Knox, Kentucky, for a time, then was assigned to Columbus, Ohio, where he finished his studies at Ohio State, earning a bachelor's degree in engineering in 1932. On 9 June 1934 he married Helen Estelle Maitland; they had one daughter.

In 1937 LeMay was chosen to lead a small squadron of B-17 heavy bombers on a flight to South America to demonstrate the United States' ability to defend that continent. In March 1941 he attained the rank of major and was assigned to pioneer air routes in England, Africa, and South America. When the United States entered World War II, LeMay was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given the command of the 305th Bombardment Group. He trained the group and personally led them in attacks on Germany. While in command of the 305th, LeMay developed the pattern attack strategy that all U.S. bomber groups would eventually embrace. On 2 March 1944 he became a major general; at thirty-seven years old he was the youngest person to have held that rank since Ulysses S. Grant.

On 13 August 1944 LeMay was assigned to the China-Burma-India war theater, where he was in charge of the new B-29 Superfortress. This heavy bomber had been plagued by defects, but LeMay reengineered it, turning it into an asset. On 7 January 1945 he became head of the 21st Bomber Command in Guam. He sent bombers on massive, low-level daylight raids, dropping incendiary bombs in dense packs on industrial centers of Japanese cities, markedly diminishing Japan's ability to produce armaments. LeMay was convinced that his tactics were forcing Japan to the point of surrender, but he made no comment about orders to drop atomic bombs on Japan.

In the National Security Act of 1947 the U.S. Air Force was established. LeMay was assigned command of U.S. air forces in Europe. On 26 June 1948 the Soviet Union blocked access by land to West Berlin. LeMay advocated forcing open the route from West Germany to West Berlin but was overruled. Instead he organized "Operation Vittles," an airlift of supplies to West Berliners; on 30 September 1948 the Soviets gave up their blockade.

In October 1948 LeMay was given command of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which was supposed to protect the United States from attack. He found a badly organized and demoralized organization equipped with outdated aircraft. His reorganization of SAC into one of the world's premier military commands is considered LeMay's greatest achievement. By the mid-1950s SAC had bombers, and 80 percent of its nuclear bombs were in the air at all times.

On 4 April 1957 LeMay was appointed U.S. Air Force vice-chief of staff and assumed his new duties in July, in Washington, D.C. There he oversaw the day-to-day operations of the air force, while General Thomas D. White, the chief of staff, concentrated on his duties for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While vice-chief, LeMay's efforts to develop new, more advanced aircraft for the air force met with initial success, with the building of prototypes of the B-70 bomber approved by Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

President Kennedy appointed LeMay his air force chief of staff in 1961. Almost immediately LeMay had problems with the new secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. McNamara had run the Ford Motor Company and had a reputation for being an outstanding manager of resources. He wanted to cut costs in the military and to begin by eliminating the B-70, the intended replacement for the B-52. Both the navy and air force wanted new jet fighters, and in spite of the very different needs of the two services, McNamara decided that instead of two new jet fighters he would approve only one, to be used by both services.

In 1961 LeMay believed the Soviet Union had outpaced America's jet fighters; if there were an air war involving fighters, he thought the United States could lose to the Soviet Union. He believed that to ensure peace, the United States should always have clearly superior armaments to discourage Soviet aggression. Kennedy, McNamara, and Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disagreed, adopting a policy of parity with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the House of Representatives, although controlled by Democrats (the party of Kennedy), agreed with LeMay and appropriated all the money needed to develop and deploy the B-70. McNamara refused to spend most of the money appropriated. This happened every year during LeMay's two terms as Air Force Chief of Staff.

McNamara tended to reduce issues to numbers—the losses of lives that would be acceptable in different sorts of conflicts. LeMay foresaw U.S. pilots flying inferior aircraft against a better-armed enemy and was angered by McNamara's attitude. He and other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff became worried that they were not being fully informed about events. The Bay of Pigs disaster of 17–19 April 1961 had been partly blamed on them, even though they were not told about it until three days before it began. McNamara had implied that LeMay was at fault.

Given the antagonism between LeMay and McNamara, LeMay expected to retire after his 1961–1963 term ended. Yet it was the navy chief of staff, LeMay's close ally in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was dismissed. Strong support for LeMay in Congress and among servicemen made it politically expedient to keep him where he was. Matters between LeMay and the administration worsened, even after Lyndon B. Johnson became president following Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. LeMay opposed committing ground troops to the Vietnam War; he believed that air power properly used could eliminate North Vietnam's war supplies and end the fighting. The policy of gradual escalation adopted by the administration seemed to be absolute folly to LeMay. Even so, the only time he publicly criticized the administration was when he was under oath before Congress in response to direct questions. McNamara told him to lie; Lemay responded that he had a constitutional duty to answer truthfully questions put to him by Congress while he was under oath.

In 1964 rumors circulated that LeMay advocated bombing North Vietnam "back into the Stone Ages" and launching nuclear weapons at Hanoi. Although these rumors appear in many reference works about LeMay, he never promoted either of them. Since LeMay was known for his tactless bluntness of speech, such remarks were attributed to him without substantiation. Meanwhile, LeMay found himself in a scandal. While Kennedy was still president, the awarding of the contract for the new jet fighter for both the navy and air force had come down to General Dynamics and Boeing. The armed services committee for studying the planes proposed by the two companies recommended Boeing's plane. The administration told them to redo their studies and make a new recommendation. They did, and they again recommended Boeing. This was repeated two more times, with Boeing consistently recommended because its aircraft would be more versatile than that of General Dynamics and hundreds of millions of dollars cheaper to develop. McNamara eventually chose General Dynamics and hinted that the military committee did not know what it was doing. Congress began an investigation into the matter and discovered many irregularities in the awarding of the contract, noting especially that General Dynamics would build its plane in Texas, which had numerous political connections to the administration, whereas Boeing would build its plane in Kansas. LeMay believed that McNamara was telling him to send pilots into combat with an inferior aircraft design.

LeMay's career ended in 1965 when he was not reap-pointed to his chief of staff position, and he retired as the longest-serving four-star general in U.S. history. Settling in southern California near his daughter and her family, he became a corporate executive. In 1968 Governor George Wallace of Alabama ran for president on the American Independent Party ticket. Twice LeMay was asked to join the ticket as the vice-presidential candidate and twice he declined, but he was very worried by how badly the war in Vietnam was being conducted and eventually agreed to run with Wallace in 1968, despite Wallace's racist views. His candidacy was a disaster for all concerned; LeMay said exactly what was on his mind, offending nearly everyone, and during a press conference with Wallace his hawkish statements seriously damaged an already floundering campaign.

After the election LeMay lived quietly, enjoying the company of his family. He died of a heart attack and was buried in the U.S. Air Force Academy Cemetery in Colorado Springs, Colorado. LeMay was probably the greatest air power strategist of the twentieth century. His innovations in strategy and tactics quite likely helped speed the end of World War II. LeMay molded SAC into a fighting force that served as an important deterrent to attacks on the United States during the cold war. During the 1960s he fought for and won a significant pay rise for all in the armed forces, and though he failed in his fight for significant improvements in armaments, he served as an example of integrity during an unhappy era in U.S. history.

Most of LeMay's papers are held in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Air Force Academy Library in Colorado Springs, Colorado, also have significant collections of his papers. LeMay and MacKinlay Kantor collaborated on LeMay's autobiography, Mission with LeMay (1965), which suffers somewhat from the fact that many of LeMay's exploits were still classified as secret when the book was published. Thomas M. Coffey, Iron Eagle: The Turbulent Life of General Curtis LeMay (1986), the standard biography, offers a detailed and lucid account of LeMay's service during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Oct. 1985).

Kirk H. Beetz

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Curtis E. LeMay

Curtis E. LeMay (1906-1990) was one of the out standing combat leaders of World War II who helped lead the strategic bombing of Japan and Germany, built the Strategic Air Command, and was Air Force chief of staff from 1961 to 1965.

Curtis E. LeMay's life and career epitomize the growth and development of U.S. military forces as America moved from isolationism in the 1930s to superpower status today. He was born in Columbus, Ohio, on November 15, 1906. LeMay worked his way through Ohio State University. In 1928 he was commissioned without completing his degree, which he completed later.

In the 1930s, LeMay helped develop the ideas and equipment America used in World War II. He participated in the Army's support of the Civilian Conservation Corps; he helped fly the mail when Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Air Corps to deliver it; and he was one of the pioneers of aerial navigation. He was the B-17 navigator who in 1937 found the battleship Utah and in 1938 found the Italian liner Rexin demonstrations of the ability of aircraft to find ships. These exercises were important in the battle to build the Air Corps as well as in the evolution of the science of aerial navigation.

In 1936 LeMay had moved from fighters to bombers, because he saw the future of military aviation in bombers— the aircraft that could take the offensive and carry the battle to the enemy. Shortly after becoming a bomber pilot he met Robert Olds. Olds taught LeMay two important lessons: first, that the peacetime Air Corps existed only to be ready to fight when and where the elected representatives of the American people directed; and second, that readiness required constant training. LeMay later built these lessons into the Strategic Air Command.

In the hectic days of early 1943, while preparing the 305th Bomber Group in California for the European war, LeMay allowed the members of the group, including himself, to take only every other weekend off and thus earned for life the nickname of "Iron Ass." While leading the 305th to Europe, and still training hard, LeMay was struck by Bell's Palsy, leaving his face frozen for life. This frozen face and his no-nonsense attitude about combat readiness gave him an undeserved reputation for cold-bloodedness and indifference to subordinates' problems.

In the summer of 1944 LeMay moved from B-17 operations against Germany to B-29 operations against Japan. That August he took command in India of B-29s which refueled in China for missions against Japan. LeMay reorganized the command's training, maintenance, and operations, but the logistics arrangements were impossible and ensured that the India-based B-29s' contribution to the American war effort was merely a token.

On January 18, 1945, LeMay left India and moved to Guam to command B-29s operating from the Marianna Islands against Japan. Once again LeMay reorganized an outfit, exercising his leadership and teaching his techniques and doctrines. The weather over Japan kept the precision bombing doctrines used in Europe from producing comparable results. LeMay, without telling his superiors and in the face of his flyers' concerns about their losses, started low level firebombing of Japanese cities. These tactics destroyed the Japanese urban areas and, in LeMay's opinion, made possible the surrender of Japan without an invasion after the dropping of the atomic bomb. In a 1985 interview with the Omaha World Herald he said that at the time he believed his firebombing had been so successful that Japan would probably have collapsed without the use of the bomb, but stated he went along with President Truman's decision to do so because of the President's authority.

Lemay did not see the use of atomic weapons instead of conventional weapons as a moral issue. For him the moral issue was, and remained, how to win with the least possible American casualties. LeMay believed that the use of too little force would needlessly prolong the war and thus produce more casualties than would have been caused by overwhelming force initially.

After the defeat of Japan in 1945, LeMay played a central role in the development of the United States Air Force (USAF). He first moved to the Pentagon and guided the creation of the Air Force's research and development organization. In 1947 he became the commander of the USAF units involved in the occupation of Germany and in 1948 started the USAF efforts in the Berlin Airlift.

That same year, as the Cold War developed, he became commander of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). LeMay served in that position until 1957. In SAC he gave the United States one of its most important military instruments to implement the national policies of containment and deterrence. Determined that if war came again American forces would be prepared, LeMay stressed realistic training and made SAC aircrews as combat ready as possible. Simultaneously he worked hard to provide for his peoples' needs. Under LeMay SAC became one of the elite military forces of the world.

From SAC he went on to duty as vice chief of staff of the Air Force and then as chief of staff from 1961 until 1965. As chief of staff LeMay participated in the Cuban missile crisis and the early stages of the Vietnam War. In both cases he argued for strong military action but loyally executed the strategy selected by his civilian superiors.

When LeMay retired he had served as a four star general longer than anyone else in American history (1951-1965). He continued to serve his country in a variety of ways. He was active as an adviser to the Air Force, ran as the third party vice-presidential candidate with George Wallace in 1968, and served as one of the directors of the National Geographic Society. While running with Wallace on the American Independent Party ticket, LeMay caused controversy by indicating he would support the use of nuclear weapons to end the war taking place in Vietnam.

In his last years, LeMay kept out of the public eye. He died at an air force hospital in California on October 1, 1990.

Further Reading

Iron Eagle: The Turbulent Life of General Curtis LeMay (1986) by Thomas M. Coffey is the only full biography of LeMay. His autobiography, written with MacKinlay Cantor, is Mission with LeMay: My Story (1965). His role in the history of the U.S. Air Force is documented in Robert Frank Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: A History of Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, 1907-1964 (1971). Dewit W. Copp's Forged in Fire, Strategy and Decisions in the Air War Over Europe, 1940-45 (1982) covers the World War II years in Europe. LeMay's importance in the air campaign against Japan is covered in Haywood S. Hansel Jr.'s Strategic Air War Against Japan (1980) and in The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 5. For more information, see The Pacific: Matterhorn to Nagasaki, June 1944 to August 1945 (1953), edited by Wesly F. Craven and James L. Cate. Harry R. Borowski, in A Hollow Threat, Strategic Air Power and Containment Before Korea (1982), explains LeMay's role as the architect of SAC. The 1985 interview with the Omaha World Herald is mentioned in LeMay's obituary in the October 2nd edition of New York Times.

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Lemay, Curtis E. (1906–1990), air tactician and World War II general.Lemay began his career in 1929 as a fighter pilot and transferred to bombers in 1937. In May 1942, he took command of the 305th Bomb Group. He trained the group and took it to England. LeMay increased bombing accuracy by discontinuing evasive action during bombing and substituted straight, level approaches, resulting in no increase in casualties. By June 1944, he commanded almost 500 heavy bombers. After transferring to the China‐Burma‐India Theater in August 1944, he next transferred to Twenty‐First Bomber Command in Guam. In March 1945, he abandoned daylight attacks, stripped his B‐29s of unnecessary weight, and began a campaign of night fire bombing that damaged numerous Japanese cities. This campaign was a decisive factor in Japan's defeat.

In October 1947, LeMay became the commander of the newly created U.S. Air Force (USAF) in Europe. He organized the Berlin Airlift before returning to the United States to take over the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in October 1948, where he changed a dispirited force into an elite unit. His nine‐year tenure (unheard of in the U.S. military) enabled him to apply consistent management practices and his remake of the organization was his most important achievement. SAC became an all‐jet bomber force, developed in‐flight refueling, and increased readiness to unprecedented heights. It served as the linchpin of the Eisenhower administration's military/diplomatic philosophy of massive nuclear retaliation. In 1957, LeMay became the Vice Chief of Staff, USAF—the man responsible for the day‐to‐day operations of the service—and in 1961, he became Chief of Staff. He found himself in the invidious position of opposing the strategic and tactical philosophies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations with their emphasis on conventional warfare and tactics, especially in Southeast Asia. LeMay further objected to the analytical management style of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. LeMay retired in 1965.


LeMay, Curtis, E., with and MacKinlay Kantor , Mission With LeMay, 1965.

Richard G. Davis

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Curtis Emerson LeMay (ləmā´), 1906–90, U.S. general, b. Columbus, Ohio. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. army air corps in 1930, he advanced through grades and in World War II commanded a bomber group in Europe and later the 20th Air Force in the Pacific. After the war he served (1945–47) as deputy chief of air staff for research and development before commanding the U.S. air force in Europe. LeMay was appointed (1948) commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command and in 1957 was also made vice chief of staff for the air force. In 1961, he became air force chief of staff, serving until his retirement in 1965. Chosen by George C. Wallace in 1968 as his running mate, he ran unsuccessfully for vice president on the American Independent party ticket.